Tuscaloosa's Solid-Waste Turkey

By United Citizens Against Toxic Chemicals

Vol. 9, No. 4, 1987, 8-9

Your city is actively considering buying an incinerator. Should you have one? Tuscaloosa, Ala., thought it should, but it now knows better. We are a citizens group from Tuscaloosa and we don't want you to make the same mistakes we did. Here's our story, as told by the newspapers.

First, you will be told how wonderful incinerators are:

Unlike the landfill it replaced, the facility is not just a place to d ump garbage and trash, but is a place that produces revenue and has the power to operate three times what it is doing now. I've seen a great number of recovery plants across the country, and I, for one, am glad to know we had the foresight to invest in such a project.--John T. Lancaster, director, Tuscaloosa County Solid Waste, quoted in the Tuscaloosa News.

You will be told that your incinerator is new, state-of-the-art, not like other incinerators in other cities or made by other companies. This is not true. All incinerators are basically the same and they all have problems. At first, the problems are kept quiet. Some stories never appeared in our local paper, but only in a paper published in Birmingham, 60 miles away:

The Alabama Department of Environmental Management is investigating complaints that Tuscaloosa's new $9 million trash burning steam plant is creating strong odors and pollutants that are making some residents ill.--The Birmingham News, October 19, 1984.

Officials from the Alabama Department of Environmental Management met with concerned residents of Tuscaloosa County here in a tense, three-hour meeting Tuesday night over Tuscaloosa's often malfunctioning garbage incinerator.--The Birmingham News, Nov. 21, 1984.

Finally, in 1985, the local newspapers started to cover the story and the local citizens became aware of some of the problems. The plant was well beyond its "shake-down" period and was still breaking down. We knew, of course, that other incinerators broke down a lot, but we had been told new state-of-the-art incinerators would not:

A coolant system breakdown at the Tuscaloosa garbage incinerator forced the plant to close for three days while repairs were made, a state officials said Friday.--The Tuscaloosa News

And then, at last, a front page article about the "bottom line":

The City of Tuscaloosa has given full backing to a$256,000 bank loan to prevent the Tuscaloosa Solid Waste Disposal Authority from technically defaulting on a bond payment of almost $800,000... The governments are under contract to help meet any deficits in operating expenses of the authority... Though the Authority needed $406,000 to make bond payments due Thursday, the governments were asked only to back $256,000 of the shortfall because the authority received the remaining $150,000 through another loan from First Alabama Bank backed by a stockholder of Consumat Systems, Inc.--The Tuscaloosa News

This "revenue-producing" incinerator was, in fact, eating up more money than this small community can afford. A very clear contract meant that local taxpayers' pockets were being emptied to keep the expensive incinerator running. By the summer of 1986, when the waste authority finally figured out that they had been bamboozled, they sued:

The Tuscaloosa Solid Waste Disposal Authority was expected to file a $20 million federal lawsuit today against Consumat Systems, Inc., charging the company with fraud, breach of contract, and negligence in the design, construction, and operation of the Tuscaloosa garbage incinerator.--The Tuscaloosa News, May 16,1986

A couple of months later, the waste authority board decided they didn't want to take the heat, the responsibility, or the counter-suit, and the headlines read:

"Tuscaloosa's Solid Waste Authority Resigns." The resignations followed months of disagreement among the governing bodies of the city, Tuscaloosa County and Northport concerning the proportionate share each should pay to cover operating shortfalls at the deficit-ridden garbage incinerator.--The Tuscaloosa News, August 8,1986

These were not the first resignations, nor would they be the last. But by spring 1987, everyone was trying to pretend that the problems were solved and everybody was happy:

"Better days may be ahead for the incinerator..." Local government officials said Friday they hoped a new agreement this week will lead to a fresh start for the city's financially troubled solid waste incinerator.--The Tuscaloasa News

Of course, there was one little detail:

"Incinerator tipping fees will double... "New rates for the incinerator's commercial users will be increased from $9 per ton to $18 per ton...the new rate will not affect INDEC, a private, for-profit garbage pickup service, or the local governing bodies of Northport, Tuscaloosa, or Tuscaloosa County...whether the tipping fees for INDEC and the three governing bodies would be lower, higher or even with the $18 tipping fee... "I 'm not prepared to say what [the negotiated fees] will be," said Rutherford, executive director of TSWDA.--The Tuscaloosa News, February 22, 1987

What's this negotiated settlement?" For now, it means much higher fees. And, as soon as more problems crop up, it means more fees and more lawsuits.

Finally, after three years, the state admitted what we had known all along:

Jack Honeycutt, chief of the solid waste section of the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, said earlier this week that preliminary tests of incinerator fly ash conducted in mid-February showed the presence of high levels of cadmium and lead, created when garbage is burned at the

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incinerator...fly ash was found to have contained dangerous levels of cadmium and lead. The Tuscaloosa incinerator produces. . . approximately 100 tons of fly ash collected daily.--The Tuscaloosa News, March 19, 1987

But you will be told that you're running out of landfill space and that an incinerator will reduce ninety percent of the garbage, and that it's the only solution.

That ninety percent figure is nonsense. The best plants can do is about seventy percent. Ours does about fifty percent. The rest of the garbage still needs to get dumped.

Consider that fifty percent of garbage is paper. All you have to do is recycle the paper and you've got a fifty percent reduction of garbage--the same as our expensive "Turkey." You're still healthy and you can sell the recycled paper. You can also recycle aluminum, steel, glass...

But you will be told that recycling isn't practical. Oh? How come all Japanese cities and towns separate out their paper, aluminum, etc., and recycle. How come the state of New Jersey has mandated at least minimal recycling for all five hundred plus of its muncipalities [sic] .

Why the big push for incinerators? Because combustion chamber manufacturers have run out of markets one is building new power plants, heating plants, or large ships--so they want to build incinerators. One of the biggest names in the game is Babcock and Wilcox, the firm that gave us Three Mile Island.

If you would like to know more about the Tuscaloosa Turkey, write United Citizens Against Toxic Chemicals, Box 7953, University, AL 35486. Our saga continues. If you're smart, you won't let yours start.

United Citizens Against Toxic Waste is an affiliate of Citizen's Clearinghouse for Hazardous Wastes, Inc., P.O. Box 926, Arlington, VA 22216 (703-276-7070). This article is reprinted with permission from Everyone's Back Yard, a newsletter published by CCHW. Three full-time CCHW field organizers help grasroots groups in the South fight a broad range of environmental hazards. The field organizers are: Linda King, P.O. Box 1608, Harvey, LA 70058 f 504-340 2321), Clay Carter, P. O. Box 31329, Birmingham, AL 35222 (205-322-4762), and Linda Meade, P.O. Box 11077, Charleston, WV 25339 (304-343-7650).